Movie Review

Spy Game

It's not how you play the game. It's how the game plays you.
Spy Game Movie Poster

US Release Date: 11-21-2001

Directed by: Tony Scott


  • Robert Redford
  • Nathan D. Muir
  • Brad Pitt
  • Tom Bishop
  • Catherine McCormack
  • Elizabeth Hadley
  • Stephen Dillane
  • Charles Harker
  • Larry Bryggman
  • Troy Folger
  • Marianne Jean-Baptiste
  • Gladys Jennip
  • Matthew Marsh
  • Dr. William Byars
  • Charlotte Rampling
  • Berlin: Anne Cathcart
  • Omid Djalili
  • Beirut: Doumet
  • Todd Boyce
  • Robert Aiken
  • Michael Paul Chan
  • Vincent Vy Ngo
  • Garrick Hagon
  • CIA Director Cy Wilson
  • Andrew Grainger
  • Andrew Unger
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: November 23rd, 2001
Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game.

Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game.

Some movies are good because of their director, while others are good in spite of their director. Such is the case with Spy Game, the new thriller which teams Redford with Pitt, directed by Tony Scott who doesn't seem to know enough to just stay out of the way of the story and instead is constantly butting into the film with freeze frame shots which are supposed to emphasize the importance time plays in the movie, but only distracts from it instead. What could have been a solid and intensely engrossing film is merely a good and mildly interesting one due in large part to the choppy direction and editing.

Redford plays veteran CIA agent Nathan Muir who gets the news, on the day of his retirement, that a former protégé of his, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been captured by the Chinese on the eve of US/China trade talks. The agency wants the whole mess to just go away, even if it means sacrificing Bishop, but Nathan, out of a sense of loyalty and guilt, will do anything to save him.

The story is told mainly in flashback. The action in the present, apart from the opening scene of Bishop's capture, is mainly in the form of men in suits sitting around a conference table or Nathan making urgent phone calls. The flashbacks detail Bishop's induction into the CIA and his training by Nathan. Together they share many adventures, but not ideology as Nathan's is "The mission at all cost. All assets, human or otherwise are expendable". While Bishop's are more about loyalty to people rather than principles.

It is this clash of ideals between the protagonists that really drives the film. The chemistry between Pitt and Redford is perfect and probably owes something to the fact that they've worked together before as director and star (A River Runs Through It), and the mentor and pupil setup here closely resembles that relationship. All of the scenes in which they appear together are riveting.

Clearly however, this is Redford's film. He carries it along with his narration, so that even in the scenes he doesn't appear in, you feel his presence. Pitt is obviously playing the supporting character, which again fits in with the character's dynamics.

They are really the only fully rounded characters in the movie, the rest of the characters really being just two-dimensional stereo-types. The close minded, suited CIA beauracrats, the loyal secretary, and the liberal girlfriend working to better the world. But as they are just satellites rotating around the Redford star, it doesn't really hurt the film.

What does hurt the film is Tony Scott's direction. Nathan has 24 hours to save Bishop's life. To illustrate that fact, we are constantly being barraged with the sudden freeze frame of someone or something, the time flashed on the screen, and overly dramatic music blared at us. Often this happens at inopportune times, barging in on moments of no real drama and instead of giving us a sense of urgency, it takes us out of the movie and thus the sense that time is passing.

In another scene Nathan and Bishop meet a top the roof of building after a mission, in which Nathan forced Bishop to use a man as bait and ended up getting the man killed. It's an intense scene and well acted, but we are subjected to swooping camera shots from a helicopter and thus distracted from some great acting. The whole set up is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Enemy of the State, also directed by Scott, in which Gene Hackman and Will Smith share a dramatic moment on a rooftop.

Closer to Le Carre than Fleming, this was a movie that could have been dramatic and exciting, but instead falls short of it's potential due to it's director, who it seems would rather have been directing a Bond film. Still if you are a Redford or Pitt fan, this one is definitely worth watching.

Reviewed on: April 6th, 2003
Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game.

Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game.

Spy Game is a symbolic movie in the career of Robert Redford. In the fall of his great career, Redford plays CIA agent Muir, who is about to retire. Whereas Redford is a great actor, so is Muir. Scott brilliantly wrote; "... this is Redford's film. He carries it along with his narration, so that even in the scenes he doesn't appear in, you feel his presence." Such is the value of matching a great movie star to the perfect role.

The movie has explosions and plenty of action. However, the best part of this movie is just watching Redford's Muir sneak about CIA HQ, pulling the wool over everyone's eyes as he figures out what is going on and how to save his imprisoned old protege. Muir is a master manipulator. He never shoots a gun or detonates an explosion. He always gets someone else to do the dirty work. It is an action movie of dialogue.

Scott went on and on about the director's time stop frames. They were needless, but not as distracting as Scott wrote. It was a small blemish on an otherwise well complexioned film.

What I feel is the biggest flaw in this movie is Pitt's character, Bishop. Bishop is easily recruited by Muir to assassinate someone. That alone should tell you what kind of job you're getting into. Later, he decides he no longer likes his job of using, and killing people for a greater good. The movie suggests he develops his nobler ideals after he gets laid by a militant wacko who killed innocent people by protesting inhumane treatment of people in China. She admits that she, as well, uses people for a greater good. There is little characterization to Bishop, and Pitt's performance adds nothing.

This is by far Redford's movie. He has made a career out of great acting that sneaks up on you. In his entire career he almost always plays some form of golden boy. He is always this blond, good looking, athletic, straight intellectual. Yet each of his performances are vastly sincere. Like his character of Muir, Redford is a master at pulling the wool over the audiences eyes. So subtle an actor is Muir that it takes a while for the other characters in this movie to realize what an amazing scam he has pulled. Likewise can be said for Redford's acting and of the audience who watch his movies.

Reviewed on: February 27th, 2013
Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game.

Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game.

Redford definitely carries the movie on his veteran shoulders. In my opinion he has always been underrated as an actor because of his golden boy looks.  In 2001 he still possessed his famous hair and thin waistline but his face had been craggy since the early-90s. His intelligence as an actor shines through in all his work but here it really plays a big part. His Nathan Muir is in nearly every scene and he is smarter than everyone else in the movie. As Scott mentioned he narrates the story so his presence is felt even when he isn't onscreen.

Pitt has a much smaller role in comparison but I agree he shines in their scenes together. Pitt inherited Redford's mantle as Hollywood's top blond leading man. Eric is right that Pitt's character is never as fully developed. He is easily convinced to become an agent and later when he demonstrates a guilty conscience about certain unsavory details it doesn't ring true. Surely he knew what he was getting into. The scenes of Redford training Pitt are some of the best in the movie.

I'm on Scott's side about the direction. I was annoyed by all the quick edits and the time countdown interruptions. The best direction is where you become unaware that you are watching a movie. When you get so caught up in the story that you momentarily forget you are watching something through a camera lens. This movie is a textbook example of how not to direct one. Tony Scott constantly reminds the audience that he is there. Sure some of his visual flourishes are clever but they distract from the movie.

The dialogue is well-written. Some of it infuses Spy Game with a bit of humor to offset the serious goings-on. Tom says to Nathan, “I thought spies drank martinis.” Nathan replies, “Scotch, never less than twelve years old.” Redford gets most of the good lines. Here are a few examples. “If I'm walking into a shit storm I wanna know which way the wind's blowing.” and “Chuck, are you gonna dance with your hand on my ass all night or are you gonna make your move?”

A great cast and a memorable script nearly make up for the distracting direction, but not quite. What could have been a classic spy thriller is merely a good movie.